SCOTUS appointments are unfair.

I was born in 1966. I’m 51 years old now.

My earliest memory about politics involves the Watergate scandal. I was seven years old. From that day to now, sometimes we had a Republican President and sometimes we had a Democratic President. Sometimes the Republicans had a majority in the Senate, sometimes the Democrats had a majority in the Senate. Sometimes the Republicans had a majority in the House of Representatives, and sometimes the Democrats had a majority.

But Republicans have had a majority in the Supreme Court the entire time, from when I was seven until now. This isn’t fair.

You could say it’s fair if Republican voters outnumbered Democratic voters. But that isn’t the case. In fact, for the last 30 years, Democratic voters have outnumbered Republican voters in almost every Presidential election. So why have the Republicans had a strangle hold on the Supreme Court?

Right now, Republican appointees have the majority, 5-4. Justice Kennedy recently announced that he is retiring and he’ll be replaced with someone nominated by a Republican President and confirmed by a Republican Senate, so the Republicans will retain the majority. The streak continues.

The problem, as I see it, is the fact that Justices retire at random times. Sometimes a President gets to appoint several Justices and sometimes none. We should make a constitutional amendment that requires one Supreme Court Justice to retire every two years (in odd numbered years). That way, every time we elect a President we’d know that this President will appoint two Supreme Court Justices, no more or less. If the President serves two terms, that’s two more. That would be fair, I think. And no justice would serve more than 18 years.

Also, we should spell out what would happen if the Senate failed to vote. From the date of the nomination, the Senate should have 30 days to confirm. If the Senate doesn’t vote at all, the nominee is confirmed by default.

Advertisements

black and white

I really don’t like the designations “black” and “white” for describing people. My main objection is that the words are inaccurate. My skin color is not even close the the same color as a sheet of white paper. And my wife’s skin color is not even close to the same color as black coffee. Honestly, her skin is yellowish brown and my skin is pinkish beige. The other reason I don’t like the words black and white is the numerous disturbing connotations. White wedding. Black comedy. Little white lies. Black-hearted villains. Just try looking up the words black and white in the dictionary.

white (adj.)

  1. free from color
  2. being a member of a group or race characterized by light pigmentation of the skin
  3. marked by upright fairness
  4. free from blemishes
  5. free from moral impurity
  6. not intended to cause harm
  7. favorable, fortunate
  8. politically conservative

black (adj.)

  1. very dark in color
  2. having dark skin and eyes
  3. relating to any of various populations having dark pigmentation of the skin
  4. dirty, soiled
  5. characterized by the absence of light
  6. thoroughly sinister or evil
  7. indicating condemnation or discredit
  8. connected to supernatural and especially the devil
  9. sad, gloomy
  10. marked by disaster
  11. characterized by hostility or anger
  12. grim, distorted
  13. of or relating to covert government intelligence

You can’t make this shit up.

I kinda like “person of color” better, as a description for someone whose skin is darker than average. One nice thing about it is that “color” has mostly positive connotations. Here’s what you find when you look up color in the dictionary:

color (noun)

  1. aspect of appearance related to light and visual perception
  2. outward appearance, often deceptive
  3. complexion
  4. vividness
  5. identifying membership or nationality
  6. character, purpose, intent
  7. vitality, interest
  8. pigment
  9. skin tone as a marker of race
  10. quality of timbre in music
  11. analysis of game action or strategy

Who wouldn’t want to be described by a word like that? It sounds much nicer. The only problem is that there’s no corresponding term for a person with a lighter color. If my wife is a person of color, then what am I? A person who lacks color? A horse of another color?

Another way to tackle this problem is to forget about appearances and just discuss the origins of our ancestors. She’s an African American and I’m a European American. This works pretty well but it’s still not perfect. For one thing, I don’t know all my ancestors. Nobody does. I tried to fill out my family tree going back to my great great great great grandparents. That’s 126 names to fill in (not counting my own name). Of those 126 names, I actually know 23 of those names. That’s roughly 20% and it only goes back about two centuries. For 80% of my ancestors, I don’t even know their name, let alone what part of the world they were born in or what color their skin was.

A few years ago, I read about a genetic study using American test subjects, looking for DNA markers that indicated recent African or European ancestry. They found that, among subjects who self-identified as “black”, 95% of them had some European ancestry. Also, among subjects who self-identified as “white”, 35% of them had some African ancestry. If I’m average, then there’s basically one chance in three that one of those 103 names I don’t know in my family tree was a person of color. Which would make me a person of less color.

Of course, if you go back far enough, all our ancestors came from Africa. The only difference is what percentage of my ancestors spent so much time in the polar latitudes that they lost their skin pigment due to vitamin D deficiencies, and what percentage of my ancestors stayed in equatorial latitudes where they needed skin pigment to protect against sun damage. But why does it matter anyway?

It matters because I live in a country where (despite our noble declarations about rejecting the concepts of class and royalty) we nevertheless treated large segments of our population horribly, based on their skin color. It matters because, even to this day, I reap the benefits of white privilege. It matters because people of color belong to families that had to face obstacles which my family didn’t face.

 

There never was a “Christian” message in A Wrinkle in Time.

The latest movie adaptation of Madelein L’Engle‘s book A Wrinkle in Time is in movie theaters now. I read a review which complained that the book’s “Christian” message was removed for the movie. That’s not accurate. There never was a Christian message in the book to begin with.

What does “Christian” mean, anyway? People sometimes blur the lines on the use of that word, such as in Carl Sagan‘s book Contact, where the main character Ellie says that she considers herself both an atheist and a christian. She says she’s an atheist because she doesn’t believe gods exist but she’s a christian because she believes in following the teachings of Jesus. Carl Sagan knew when he wrote this that it would be confusing and this isn’t what the word “Christian” really means. A Christian is a person who believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, a unique divine incarnation of the all-powerful god Jehovah. There are many religions that recognize Jesus as being something other than the christ. Judaism says Jesus was a great Rabbi, although not as great as Moses. Islam says Jesus was a great prophet, but not as great as Muhammad. And then there’s Deism; Thomas Jefferson (perhaps the most famous Deist) said that he doubted the divinity of Jesus. And there’s the Baha’i faith, which lists Jesus as one of several divine incarnations, alongside Moses and Muhammad. None of these religions recognize Jesus as THE christ, and the people who follow those other religions are not “Christians”. And this is not a complete list.

Within Christianity, there are many branches and denominations. Nearly all of them insist that Jesus has a unique god-like status. Most would agree that Jesus and Jehovah are actually the same person. The gospel of John implies that Jesus and Jehovah (being the same person) were both present at the moment of creation itself. What makes a person a Christian is their belief that Jesus is the only path to salvation. Simply put, if you want a ticket to heaven, you have to get the ticket from Jesus.

Nothing remotely like this appears in the book A Wrinkle in Time. There are several religious references, but every single one of them is just as consistent with Judaism or Islam or Baha’i as they are with Christianity. I will take them one at a time.

In Chapter 1, Charles says “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”, apparently quoting Saint Bernard of Clairvaux . This saying is common outside of Christianity, used frequently by people who don’t even believe that hell is a real place. A Christian might use this saying to bolster the argument that Jesus is the only path to salvation. But it could just as easily be used by a Muslim who believes that submission to the will of Allah is what earns you a ticket to heaven (not mere good intentions) or even by an atheist who believes that actions speak louder than words.

In Chapter 3, Charles asks Calvin to read him a bedtime story. He chooses the book of Genesis. There’s nothing here to indicate that Charles thinks the book of Genesis is anything more than a bedtime story. It’s a fairy tale, not to be taken seriously. Also keep in mind that Mrs. Which later reveals her age to be more than 2 billion years, which is not consistent with the creation story in the book of Genesis.

In Chapter 4, the children hear some aliens singing and Mrs. Whatsit attempts to translate the song lyrics into words the children can understand. She struggles, finally saying “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift their voice; let the inhabitants of the rock sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory unto the Lord!” Keep in mind that the aliens aren’t actually singing these words. These are the words that Mrs. Whatsit translated with great difficulty. She chose words that she thought the children could understand. It’s not at all clear whether the “Lord” the aliens are singing about is Jehovah, or whether Mrs. Whatsit intended for the song to be taken seriously. In any case, there’s no specific mention of Jesus the Christ and, here on Earth, the word Lord is usually taken to mean Jehovah, not Jesus. The lyrics have a 17th century flavor to them, which brings to mind church hymns and the King James Bible. But this begs the question of how Mrs. Whatsit would have translated the lyrics if she were talking to children who spoke Arabic. Would she have used language that sounded vaguely like the Koran? If she had been talking to children who spoke Hebrew, would she have used language that sounded vaguely like the Tora? There’s nothing here that is specific to Christianity.

In Chapter 5, Mrs. Whatsit talks about “a grand and exciting battle” being fought “all through the universe”, and she says “some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet”. Then she invites the children to guess who the fighters were. The first one they suggest is Jesus. Then Mrs. Whatsit prompts them by saying, “There were others. All your great artists.” The children then come up with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Bach, Pasteur, Madame Curie, Einstein, Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, Beethoven, Rembrandt, St. Francis, Euclid, and Copernicus. Mrs. Whatsit doesn’t object to a single name on their list. Mrs. Whatsit is implying here that Jesus is no more divine than Pasteur or Euclid. I don’t see how anyone could call this “Christian”. It’s placing Jesus on an even lower pedestal than where Islam places him.

In Chapter 11, Aunt Beast says to Meg, “We are the called according to His purpose, and whom He calls, them He also justifies.” This is apparently a quote from Romans 8:30. When Paul wrote those words about 45 years after Jesus died, it was clear to Paul’s readers that Paul was talking about Jehovah. But it’s not at all clear in this context whether Aunt Beast is also talking about Jehovah. It may have been L’Engle’s intent that we would infer from this that Paul was another fighter, alongside Jesus and Euclid. Paul was notorious for quoting the Old Testament and not quoting the teachings of Jesus; he rarely talked about Jesus at all except when discussing the resurrection.

A moment later, Meg asks who helps them in their fight and Aunt Beast replies, “What can I tell you that will mean anything to you? Good helps us, the stars help us, perhaps what you would call light helps us, love helps us. Oh, my child, I cannot explain! This is something you just have to know or not know.” Frankly, that sounds more like Gnosticism than Christianity.

Also in Chapter 11, The three children are talking to Aunt Beast about Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, trying to figure out what words to describe them. Calvin suggests “Guardian angels” and then “Messengers of God”. But Aunt Beast immediately replies that this description is “not clear enough”. People from almost any religion could suggest that angles are messengers from God. There’s nothing here that specifies Christianity.

Throughout the entire book, there is no mention of heaven or salvation. There is no mention of sin or forgiveness. There is no mention of any of Jesus’s teachings, let alone his unique status as the messiah. A Christian could read this book and say “Yes, I recognize those words” but then so could a member of just about any religion other than Christianity, or a person who follows no religion at all. One could argue that L’Engle is proposing here a whole new view on life, the universe, and everything. This new view shares a few pieces in common with the dominant religions of Earth but it has a vastly different perspective and shares none of the dogma. Calling this view Christian is absurd.

On the other hand, L’Engle may have personally held quite different views from those discussed in the book. Other science fiction authors have described new world-views that didn’t necessarily fit their personally religion. C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind, such as in his book Out of the Silent Planet, where Lewis talks about angels but makes no mention at all of Jesus or his teachings or his divine status. Yet Lewis himself was a Christian who famously said that Jesus must have been either a Liar, the Lord, or a Lunatic. Of course, Lewis overlooked the obvious fourth option which is Legend. But I digress. He specifically rejected the notion that Jesus might have been merely a great rabbi but not the messiah.

L’Engle herself was known to say that she believed in universal salvation. She believed that Jesus was the path to salvation but becoming a Christian (or even knowing about Jesus) was not necessary in order to receive salvation. This view put her in a tiny minority of Christians, which caused many Christian book stores to refuse to carry her books because they felt she wasn’t a true Christian. Conversely, some secular bookstores considered her books too religious. But I say that anyone who claims A Wrinkle in Time has a Christian message is reading more into it than what’s actually in the book. The most you can say is that it seems to be promoting belief in a god, although the book offers no proof and doesn’t even specify which god.

Back to the Future breaks its own rules.

In the genre of time travel, the Back to the Future trilogy stands as one of the best examples. But it still has its share of logical inconsistencies. The first movie stands pretty well on its own, but logic goes out the window at the beginning of the second movie.

A few times in the trilogy, Doc attempts to explain what’s happening by talking about multiple timelines. This is fine as far as it goes. The whole point of science is to attempt to explain the observed facts. They observe some rather strange facts and Doc attempts to explain them. But they skip the next part of the scientific method, which is to design an experiment which tests your explanation. I suppose we could excuse this because of Doc’s fear of destroying the space-time continuum. But this fear seems to be misguided. Doc says that knowing too much about your own destiny could endanger your own existence. This is a bizarre claim that seems to have no basis in the observed facts.

What threatens Marty’s existence isn’t knowledge of the future, but making changes to the past. Specifically, he prevents George from getting hit by the car, which he knows is the moment that causes Elaine to fall for George. This is an example of the classic Grandfather Paradox, which I discussed in my last post.

I say again, Doc is completely wrong when he says that Marty endangered his existence by knowing too much about his future. On the contrary, the more Marty knew about the future, the better equipped he was at trying to avoid damaging the fabric of the space-time continuum. Marty was able to repair the damage because he knew that his parents first kissed at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. If he’d had the presence of mind to remember the car accident story, he could have avoided the disruption in the first place. Knowledge of the future is helpful, not hurtful. Doc is wrong. However, BTTF would hardly be the first movie where a character reaches an incorrect conclusion. This is not my complaint.

Doc apparently changed his mind when he put on a bullet-proof vest after reading Marty’s letter. Perhaps he realized his previous mistake and figured out that the universe would sweep under the rug minor paradoxes. He went to a great deal of effort to make the smallest possible change. He didn’t seek an alternate source of Plutonium. He didn’t tell the police about the Libyans. He didn’t even try to jump into the DeLorean with Marty and escape before the Libyans arrived. He merely wore a bullet-proof vest under his radiation suit, allowing Marty to film a video which looks identical to the one he saw in 1955. Clearly, Doc still believes that big paradoxes are dangerous. He only permits himself the smallest possible paradox, and then only when his own life is in danger. Why would he throw caution to the wind, upon discovering that Marty Jr. goes to jail in 2015? Assuming that Doc wanted to repay Marty for saving his life, his logical course of action would be to kidnap Marty Jr. on that fateful day in 2015. Griff goes to Cafe Eighties and Marty Jr. simply isn’t there. Problem solved. Instead, Doc decides to go back in time to 1985 and kidnap Marty so that Marty can impersonate Marty Jr. It’s a reckless plan. This is not my complaint either.

My complaint is that BTTF2 doesn’t play by the same rules that BTTF did.

In the first movie, every time anyone jumps forward in time, the timeline continues on in their absence and they arrive to find everything is just as you would expect it to be, given the way things were before the jump. In other words, jumping backward in time creates a new timeline but jumping forward does not. It just continues the existing timeline. We see this three times: Einstein the dog jumps forward one minute in 1985, Marty jumps forward from 1955 to 1985, and Doc jumps forward from 1985 to 2015. The time traveler always arrives to find a world that follows logically from the one they left as it continued on without them. Einstein arrives to find Marty and Doc anxiously waiting for him, because they saw him disappear at 88 mph. Marty arrives in 1985 to find that the mall is called Lone Pine, because he ran over one of the pine trees in 1955. And Doc arrives in 2015 to find that Marty and Jennifer have kids, because they were teenagers in love back in 1985. All that is logical. Then the logic goes out the window at the beginning of BTTF2.

Doc goes back in time to 1985 and finds Marty talking to Jennifer. He convinces both of them to get into the DeLorean and travel to 2015. What will they find when they get there? By the rules of BTTF, they should find a 2015 where Marty Jr. does not exist because he had no parents. Marty and Jennifer were kidnapped in 1985 and were never seen or heard from again. This new timeline would be caused by Doc going back in time from 2015 and changing the past by kidnapping Marty and Jennifer.

Logically, they should arrive in 2015 and be unable to find Marty Jr. They should seek out George and Elaine, only to discover that George and Elaine haven’t seen Marty or Jennifer since 1985. George and Elaine think Biff killed Marty and Jennifer, then hid their bodies. After all, Biff was the last person to see them alive and his story is that he saw a flying DeLorean disappear in a fireball. Add to this the fact that George and Elaine remember that Biff tried to rape Elaine in 1955. But Marty and Jennifer’s bodies were never found and there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Biff. Doc should sheepishly admit that he made a huge mistake and return Marty and Jennifer to 1985 so they can stay there and get married and have kids. But that movie would stink. So the film makers changed the rules. That’s my complaint.

And then we see Biff create major paradoxes with no apparent bad consequences. He doesn’t erase himself from existence. The fabric of the space-time continuum doesn’t tear. It seems that Doc was completely wrong and the universe can tolerate quite a large amount of meddling. The writers seem to have gone back to option one regarding the Grandfather Paradox. Just accept the weirdness.

But it’s still a really good story, better than most time travel movies.

The Grandfather Paradox

In time travel stories, we can imagine scenarios where going back in time and changing something might prevent you from building the time machine in the first place. For example, you might go back in time and shoot your own grandfather, while he’s still a child. Would you cease to exist? If you don’t exist, then who killed your grandfather? This is the classic Grandfather Paradox. There are many variations of this paradox, such as going back in time to kill yourself before the time machine is built.

There are several ways to resolve the Grandfather Paradox. One option is to just accept the weirdness of having an effect with no apparent cause. Your grandfather is dead, killed by you, and that’s not a problem. In the original timeline, you existed. In the new timeline, you killed your grandfather. You continue to exist as an effect with no apparent cause. But you did have a cause. It’s just that the cause has been erased.

Another way to resolve the Grandfather Paradox is say that it simply can’t happen. Your attempt to kill your grandfather will fail in some way. This sounds a little glib but it actually works. Imagine someone handing you a script of everything you will say and do, and everything that will happen, today. But suppose there are millions of possible scripts and you get to choose which one you want to follow. Now imagine that some of these millions of scripts lead to paradoxes. Let’s put those into the trash. Put the remaining scripts in a stack on your desk. Pick one from the desk, and you avoid a paradox. What if we reach a point where every single script ends up in the trash and there are none on the desk? Believe it or not, scientists have worked on this question. They considered a simple case of a solid round rock passing through a wormhole. They found that, in every possible scenario, there was always at least one way to avoid a paradox. Perhaps 99%+ of the scripts might end up in the trash but there will always be at least one script remaining on the desk. Now here’s the tricky part. There might be a very small number of scripts on the desk. And it might be true that all of them contain something that seems extremely unlikely. But one of those things has to happen because the alternatives were literally impossible. To misquote Sherlock Holmes, once you discard the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how unlikely, must become the truth. For example, if the only way to avoid killing your grandfather is that the gun will jam, then that’s exactly what must happen. The gun must jam.

A third option for resolving the Grandfather Paradox is with parallel universes. You are born in universe A, travel back in time into universe B, and kill your grandfather. There’s no paradox because your grandfather remains unharmed back in universe A. The two universes had been identical; both contained exact copies of your grandfather. In universe A, your parents were born and had you, you grew up and built a time machine, then you disappeared forever. In universe B, your grandfather was killed in his childhood (by you) and no time machine was ever built. There’s no paradox. The only unsettling aspect of this is that your unexplained appearance in universe B seems to be an effect that has no cause. But that’s not the case. You had a cause. It just happened in a different universe. If you decide to jump back to where you left, you’d find that your grandfather is still alive in universe A. It would seem that your attempts to meddle with the timeline had no effect at all.

A fourth option for resolving the Grandfather Paradox is to say that we can stretch the fabric of space-time without tearing it. This seems to be the option which Back to the Future opted for. Minor paradoxes (such as the name of the mall) can be swept under the rug. But major paradoxes (such as Marty’s parents never hooking up) must be avoided at all cost. In the movie, Doc is afraid that they might destroy the universe. But the universe fights to preserve itself by eliminating Marty. In the new timeline, Marty will never be born, because he changed his own past. And the universe will continue on without him. His unexplained appearance in 1955 becomes a minor detail to be swept under the rug and forgotten. That’s why his picture fades in the photograph and his hand turns transparent. He’s fading away.

But then (for no apparent reason) George suddenly kisses Elaine and Marty’s existence is restored.

It’s interesting to note that the second or the fourth option (or some combination of the two) could explain why Marty seems to have such amazingly good luck at catching the lightning bolt at just the right moment, despite the fact that the DeLorean’s engine stalled for several seconds and he is behind schedule. It could be just another example of impossible paradoxes being eliminated, leaving behind (unlikely as they may be) events which avoid major paradoxes.

This fourth option is discussed in the Robert A. Heinlein book The Door into Summer. But they don’t clearly establish whether that’s the case in that story. In the Harry Potter novels, the time turner seems to rely on the second option; paradoxes simply can’t happen. Whatever you do in the past must be 100% consistent with what has already been observed in the present.

The unsettling thing about the second option (where your choices are limited) is that it seems to eliminate free will. But we don’t really know that free will exists anyway. It might just be an illusion. In that case, we aren’t so much eliminating it as we are recognizing that it never existed in the first place.

In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at Back to the Future.

I wish

I wish I lived in a different country.

The country I’d like to live in doesn’t exist, but I can imagine it.

It would be a country with lots of colleges and universities. The people would be free to criticize the government without fear of being arrested for it. The weather would be, in most places, pretty nice for at least half the year. And they’d have thriving fields of science and medicine and entertainment. So far, it sounds pretty similar to where I live now. But this fictional country would have a very different approach to firearms.

In this fictional country, only members of the national guard would be allowed to have firearms. Most police officers would carry non-lethal weapons. If you joined the national guard, they’d train you for sixteen weeks on how to be a responsible soldier, including proper use of a firearm. Then they’d issue you an assault rifle and a sidearm, with bullets to go with it. In the national guard, you’d spend one weekend each month and two full weeks every year, on duty. When you went home, you’d take your weapons with you to your house, and you’d be personally responsible for keeping those weapons safe and ready. As soon as you left the national guard (for whatever reason), you’d have to give back the weapons and account for every single bullet they’d issued to you.

In this fictional country, the national guard would be very professional, well practiced and well disciplined (or, to use an old-fashioned term for it, “regulated”). Not just anyone could join. It would have to be that way, because there wouldn’t be a standing army. The national guard would be our first and last line of defense against attackers. In a time of war, they could be called up at a moment’s notice. And they’d never go on offense, traveling halfway around the world to attack someone who hadn’t attacked us. It would be defense only. That’s why I like the name “national guard” instead of “militia”, because it emphasizes the fact that the purpose is to guard the nation, not to go attacking other nations. So, “militia” would be a good name too, but we can’t let it sound like just a bunch of unorganized people with guns. It would be a well-regulated militia (a very professional and highly organized national guard).

This fictional country would have a national law saying that, as long as you’re a national guard member in good standing, local governments can’t disarm you. Maybe they could require you to wear your uniform while you are carrying the weapons, but they couldn’t force you to leave your weapons locked up. I mean, obviously you can’t be ready to defend the nation at a moment’s notice if the militia has to keep the weapons locked away in an armory somewhere miles away. The people who are in the militia should keep their weapons at home or carry them around.

In order to remind people of how important it was to keep this defense ready (and to emphasize the fact that it only applied to members of the militia who are in good standing), the law would state quite clearly its purpose. The purpose would be to ensure the security of the country, not for hunting or for stopping burglars. So the law would start with, “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state,“, just to make that clear. Then it would finish with, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

So everyone who seriously cared about the security of the country (the state), and not just their own security or their family’s security, could apply to join the national guard (the well-regulated militia). After completing extensive training, and only while they kept up their membership, they’d be required to keep their military weapons ready to defend the country. No local law could infringe on that.

In this fictional country, it would be almost impossible for an unhappy teenager to get military weapons and shoot up a school. There wouldn’t be very many weapons around to try to get. Such weapons would be extremely expensive on the black market. It would be very hard to raise that much money. And people who are mentally unstable would never make it through basic training, so they’d always be outmatched by professions who were better prepared. A soldier who suffered a breakdown would be given mental health treatment, but they would not carry weapons unless or until they were cleared to return to duty.

Of course, this law would be subject to change. I mean, this all sounds like a great idea now but it’s hard to predict what unexpected problems would arise in the future. So we’d have to emphasize that, when necessary, the law itself could be amended. For example, if we ever decided that a standing army was a better way to ensure our security, then maybe the militia wouldn’t be necessary anymore. And we could then change the law, obviously. Or maybe language itself would evolve over the centuries, to the point where we’d have to rewrite the law for the sake of clarity. Maybe we’d reword it to say “As long as our country needs a professional and well-trained national guard, local laws shall not prevent members of the national guard from storing and carrying their issued weapons.”

I wish I lived in that fictional country.

But, instead, I was born in a country where we have a completely different law. The law we have here guarantees that anyone, with or without any training, can have a gun and use it for hunting, or shooting trespassers. And you don’t even have to belong to a militia at all, let alone a well-regulated one. Totally different. And there’s absolutely nothing that I can do about it because this law absolutely cannot be changed.

Oh well. *sigh*

“Life of Pi” is NOT a kid’s movie!

I heard about Life of Pi, and I thought it looked very interesting. I’ve seen lots of movies about people who are alone in a small boat (or in a small boat with just a few other people) but I’d never seen one about being alone in a boat with a tiger. I had the impression that it was cute, and expected a kid’s movie on par with the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book. Life of Pi is rated PG. Now that I’ve watched the movie, I’m here to tell you that this rating is absolutely wrong.

This movie should not be rated PG. It is not for children.

It contains serious adult themes about life and death and murder. I’m over 50 years old, and this movie made me feel like a 10-year old who accidentally ended up watching an R-rated movie filled with violence.

My wife said Life of Pi should be rated R. I disagree; it should be rated Q, meaning do not watch this movie unless your best friend is Quentin Tarantino. If you love blood and gore, if you thought Inglorious Basterds was a pleasant afternoon romp, then you’ll probably enjoy Life of Pi without getting sick to your stomach.

Allow me to explain. SPOILERS AHEAD.

The movie is basically about vegetarianism.

The main character (Pi) is a vegetarian Hindu living in India. Throughout the movie, he talks about the ethics of eating meat. His father eats meat but the rest of the family doesn’t. His father is a zookeeper and Pi wants to make friends with a tiger there, saying he can see in the tiger’s eyes that the tiger has a soul. But his father insists that he’s just seeing his own reflection and tigers do not have souls. What’s implied here is that Pi is struggling with the question of whether a carnivore can have morality. He himself never eats meat, but he wants to understand and love others who do, including his father.

On the ship, we meet a cook who mocks Pi’s family when they ask for vegetarian food. He offers them liver and sausage and gravy. There’s an angry confrontation about it. Later, we see a vegetarian Buddhist who rationalizes eating rice with gravy by saying he’ll only do it while he’s on the ship. This is foreshadowing to what Pi will face later in the movie. Pi has to rationalize eating human flesh by telling himself he’ll only do it while he’s in the lifeboat.

Most of the movie is fantasy, from the moment when a zebra leaps into the lifeboat (sustaining a broken leg) to the moment where the tiger walks off into the jungle. Those parts were hard enough to watch, with animals eating each other and hearing the crunch of bones. But the worst was yet to come. In the last minutes of the movie, we learn the true story of what actually happened in the lifeboat. Pi watched the cook carve up the dead body of the Buddhist, use some of it for fish bait, and eat some of it himself. Then Pi watched the cook murder Pi’s mother and toss her body to the sharks. Then Pi murdered the cook and sliced up his body. Then he waited a long time, struggling with his inner carnivore, to the point where he almost died from starvation. Finally, he gave in and ate the cook’s dead body. Then he made up a fantasy to make himself feel better.

The journalist at the end spells it out for us, the audience. The zebra was the Buddhist. The Hyena was the cook. The Orangutan was Pi’s mother. The tiger was Pi himself (or more accurately, Pi’s inner carnivore).

Pi had to learn a hard truth about himself and what he was willing to do. He never thought he would eat meat. He tried to tame his inner carnivore. But, in the end, he was willing to eat, not just meat, but human meat. Specifically, he ate the flesh of a man that he knew, a man with whom he’d had conversations.

In a way, I think this movie is trying to challenge all of us to examine our own ethics of eating meat. Are you willing to kill and eat a man who just murdered your mother? Would you be willing to kill and eat an animal from a zoo? How about a fish? When you buy meat from the grocery store and it’s neatly wrapped up in plastic, you avoid looking into the animal’s eyes before it’s killed. That makes it easier. But is that morally right, to enjoy the result of the death while insulating yourself from the death itself?

This is what the movie is really all about. It makes your stomach churn. That’s on purpose. That’s what the makers of the movie wanted to happen. If you show this movie to a child, one of two things will happen. A) They won’t understand it, or B) They will cry and have nightmares for weeks. Either that or the child is a sociopath.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, they also had to throw in the theme about gods and religion. We are told that Pi’s story will make you believe in God. At the end, Pi admits that there are two versions of the story. There’s the true version where he avenged his mother’s murder and ate the murderer. There’s the fantasy version where he spent six months on a boat with a tiger. Pi points out that both stories begin with a ship sinking and end with him suffering and being the only survivor so it’s just a matter of which story you prefer. Then he says it’s the same thing with God. You can either accept the truth that you are born, you live, you die, and there is no God, or you can imagine that you are born, you live, you die, and God cares about you. Which story do you prefer? The truth or the fantasy? He chooses the fantasy even though he knows the truth, because the truth is just too horrible for him to bear.

In other words, this is the famous Appeal to Consequences. If there is no God, then life sucks. I don’t want my life to suck, therefore God must be real.

Frankly speaking, the version of God imagined in this movie is kinda comforting. He watches you and sometimes gives you some help along the way. That’s a whole lot nicer than the God who condemns you to eternal torture because you masturbated and forgot to beg for forgiveness. Or maybe you begged but you didn’t say the right words; you asked forgiveness from Poseidon instead of Jesus, so it doesn’t count, and you get eternal torture after all. And let’s not forget the God who commands people to murder each other by the millions.

Fortunately, there’s no evidence that any of these Gods are real. Because if there was a real God, then we wouldn’t have the luxury of inventing whichever version makes us feel better. We’d be stuck with the actual one. Lucky for us, we can change the fantasy God to suit us. That means we can take the murderous vengeful God and get rid of it. We can discard the eternal torturing God just as easily. And you can cling to the comforting guardian angel God, if it helps you cope.

It might make it easier for you to ignore the fact that you are a carnivore, surviving on the death of other animals that carried the spark of life. You might have seen that spark if you looked into their eyes. It’s easier if you don’t look.

Electric Vehicle conversions

EV conversions are fun as a hobby but articles about teenagers who build their own for just a few hundred dollars are mostly bullshit. They conveniently fail to mention the incredible luck of getting expensive parts donated for free plus hundreds of hours of labor also done for free.

Trust me, I have spent thousands of hours researching how to build an electric car. I have built three of them (with varying degrees of success and failure). There are some major challenges to overcome in taking an ICE car and converting it to an EV.

First, there’s the question of safety. Cars have evolved quite a bit over the decades, first with seat belts, then crumple zones, then air bags, then antilock brakes, and now (in some cars, anyway) collision avoidance. Generally speaking, the older the car, the less safe it is. Second then there’s the problem of technology. Newer cars tend to have tons of special features such as air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, remote keyless entry, navigation, and even self-parking. Generally speaking, the newer the car, the more complicated it is.

Let’s just consider two factors: air bags and power steering. Nearly all cars made after 1983 have power steering. Almost no cars made before 1993 have air bags. In most cars, power steering runs off a pump which is connected to the crankshaft via a serpentine belt. This belt also drives the air conditioner, but I digress. The pump gets power whenever the engine is turning over, even if the car is in neutral. That’s why it’s illegal to shut off your engine while coasting down a hill; the engine stops supplying power to the pump and your power steering fails a few seconds later.

Follow me on this. You want to convert an ICE car to EV. You find the perfect donor car for only $1000, remove the engine, remove the gas tank, put in a $1000 electric motor, put in $2000 of batteries, put in a $1000 controller, and… oops. The power steering pump gets no power unless the motor is turning. But that doesn’t happen when the car is sitting still. Which means you can’t steer out of the driveway. Oops. So you kick yourself for picking a donor car which needs power steering and then go out and get a different donor car which never had power steering, which means it was made before 1983. Which means it has no air bags. Which means it’s less safe.

But hey, you shrug and say “Air bags? We don’t need no steenkin’ air bags!” and get a 1971 VW Type I (a.k.a. a bug or a beetle depending on who you ask). At least they had seat belts. So you convert that to electric power and you don’t have to worry about the power steering because it never had power steering to begin with. Now you have spent $6000 worth of parts (plus hundred of hours of labor) to have an electric beetle. It’s sluggish and has a top speed of 45 and a range of about 25 miles. It looks like a science experiment, with little wires running everywhere. And it doesn’t have air bags.

or air conditioning.

and the defroster sucks.

and now you have no trunk space because what used to be the trunk is now full of lead acid batteries, which increases the curb weight by about 1,000 pounds.

so you need a beefier suspension.

and better brakes.

hmm. It sure would be nice to have power brakes. Oh well.

So now your stopping distance is longer, which means you’re more likely to get into an accident. And if you ever do have an accident, not only will you be wishing you had air bags and crumple zones, now you have the double whammy of sulfuric acid leaking all over the place and/or 500 amps of power trying to ground itself through random chunks of metal, all while the fire department stands there looking at your sparking acid-leaking smoldering heap wondering if it’s safe to use the jaws of life without getting electrocuted.

Don’t get me started on Engine Control Units.

Now compare this giant mess to buying an EV that was designed from the ground up to be an EV, such as the Mitsubishi iMiev. All the high-voltage wiring is outside the passenger compartment. The battery pack is under the car, not in the trunk. The weight of the pack is only 330 pounds because it’s Lithium ion instead of lead-acid. Which means it won’t leak acid in a crash. The power steering is electric instead of pump-driven. It has air bags. It has air conditioning. The heat is kinda wimpy, but nothing’s perfect. It has a top speed of 82mph, a range of 50-70 miles, and it’s actually safe to drive.  Up until 2017, you could buy one for about $17K after the rebate, $19K if you want the navigation package. But the i-Miev is discontinued. The 2018 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive has similar specs for pretty much the same price.

On the other hand, there are professional conversion places who can overcome the engineering hurdles of an EV conversion and make it look nice when they’re done. You could call up one of these places and say “I want a 2018 Toyota Camry converted to an EV” and they can get it done. They’ll buy a Camry sans engine for $20K, put $10K worth of Lithium batteries into it, figure out some way to run the wiring safely, put in a $2K electric controller, figure out an electric replacement for the power steering, and the power brakes, reprogram the ECU so the “check engine” light doesn’t keep coming on, maybe even paint a big lightning bolt down the side, and charge you $90 per hour for 200 hours of labor, plus a little markup for profit, and voila! You have a Electric Camry for only $60,000. It has air bags, crumple zones, navigation, air conditioning, antilock brakes, everything. It has a top speed of 82 mph, a range of 50-70 miles, it’s actually safe to drive, and it only costs three times as much as a brand new Smart EV.

woo

wait for it

hoo.

How do you feel?

It drives me crazy when I hear someone say “I feel badly.” They think they are sounding educated, just like someone who says “It was a bad day for my sister and I”. But both of them are wrong. It should be “I feel bad” and “It was a bad day for my sister and me”.

English verbs can be divided into two categories: verbs of being and verbs of doing. The first group includes words like am/is/are/was/were. They link the subject to an adjective.

I am happy.
She is hungry.
Those bananas are good.
My dog was bad.
Those plates were hot.

Most other verbs describe an action and may be accompanied by an adverb which modifies the verb and describes the quality of the action.

I danced happily.
She ate her lunch hungrily.
He told the story well.
You did your work badly.
Those people argued hotly.

So, what about the word feel? It belongs in the first category. It links a subject to an adjective.

I feel happy.
She feels hungry.
I feel good.
He felt bad.
I feel hot.

It is just plain wrong to say…

I feel happily.
She feels hungrily.
I feel goodly.
He felt badly.
I felt hotly.

What confuses people is that it sounds nice to say “I feel well” instead of “I feel good”. That’s not because well is an adverb. It’s because well can also be an adjective describing health. So it’s perfectly fine to say “I feel well” meaning the opposite of “I feel ill”. The word feel is not a verb of doing, it’s a verb of being. So, what’s the opposite of “I feel good”? It’s “I feel bad”. And if you say  “I feel badly” you are just as wrong as anyone who says “I feel happily”.

 

“It was a bad day for my sister and I” is wrong for a different reason. It’s wrong because you would never say “a bad day for I”. It should be “a bad day for me”, therefore the whole sentence goes “It was a bad day for my sister and me.”

Also, a preposition is a perfectly fine thing to end a sentence with.

The Highest Morality?

I really enjoy science fiction. When I was a teenager, I read hundreds of sci-fi novels, including every Robert A. Heinlein novel I could get my hands on. But there were some things about RAH that bothered me. One of them was what he said when he gave the commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

He talked about monkeys that stand guard, watching out for predators, while the rest of the monkeys are eating. He compared the Annapolis graduates to those monkeys, but not in a bad way. He said those monkeys who put their own lives at risk were examples of the highest morality and said the Annapolis graduates belonged in that same category. I disagree.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great admiration for anyone who is willing to put their own life on the line for someone else. I just disagree as to what’s the “highest”.

If you risk your own life to get something for yourself (not for anyone else), people call you greedy and I agree.

If you risk your own life for your family (but not for anyone else’s family), people call you brave. I call that decent.

If you risk your own life for strangers in your own city (like a police officer or a fire fighter), people call that brave or heroic. I agree. But it’s important to note that these brave heroes would risk their lives for a visitor to the city as well, and they would never actively fight against another city. Their job is to protect humans who need protection. I applaud them.

If you risk your own life for your country, people call that brave and heroic. RAH called it the highest morality. But there’s an important distinction here. We are talking about soldiers who fight FOR their own country and AGAINST another country. Yes they are risking their lives but they have drawn a line, essentially pledging to defend and protect everyone on one side of the line at the expense of other people who are on the other side of the line. I admire them for risking their lives, and I put them on a higher level than someone who fights only for their own family, but I don’t call this the highest.

If you risk your life for all of humanity, working to protect and defend all humans everywhere from harm, regardless of what country they come from… well, about half the people I went to high school with would call you a traitor. But I say that’s a higher level of morality than someone who only fights for their own country. A good example would be Doctors Without Borders.

There could be higher levels above that. A person who risks their own life to to defend and protect all life everywhere, not just their own species, would probably be a higher level.

But I understand why RAH said soldiers are the highest level. Because it works. A society which tells its soldiers that they are the highest level of morality, convincing those soldiers to kill other soldiers in the process, is a society which will survive and thrive. It will continue doing what it did in the past. It will continue to teach its citizens to say really nice things about their own soldiers.

But in the end, it’s just another example of selfish behavior. It’s not a selfish individual driven by selfish genes. It’s a selfish country, driven by the same law of natural selection: whatever succeeds continues and whatever fails doesn’t.

We are a social species. We evolved the instincts to take care of each other, which increases our own chances for survival. Solitary humans rarely survive for very long. Our instinct is to defend and protect that which we recognize as being “us” and (when necessary) attack and destroy anything else. I’m proud of people who are able to expand their minds to say that “us” includes more than just their family. I’m disappointed by people who can’t even imagine stretching “us” to include more than just their country. I’m down right insulted by people who say it’s wrong for us to even try.

God bless the whole world, no exceptions.